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My thanks to taxus, science and native Americans


The remedies of the original American medicine men were subject to special attention, and it turned out that a particular toxin found in the bark of the American Yew could stop certain types of cancer growth. The substance was called Taxol.

It takes three and a half hours for 280 milligrams of poison dissolved in just a bit more than three deciliters of saltwater to drip into my arm. Paclitaxel is the pharmaceutical name for the poison that deprives the cancer cells of the ability to divide. It paralyzes growth, by paralyzing the microfilaments, which pulls the genes apart during the division process, in any cell. That is why all dividing cells that encounter the poison die instead of forming two new cells.

The poison originates from the bark of a tree that grows throughout the western United States. Pacific Yew, the Americans call the tree, which in Alaska is just small shrub and in the southern states grows to a tall tree.


The Latin name is Taxus Brevifolia. And it is a relative of the yew, Taxus Baccata, which grows in virtually every Danish garden and shines in the winter darkness with its juicy, fleshy red berries. After the last ice age – some 7000-8000 years ago – the taxus was the first coniferous tree to re-immigrate to Denmark from the south. Descendants of these posticeage trees are still growing in Munkebjerg Strandskov by Vejle.

In the 1960s, the American National Cancer Institute set up a research group that would systematically trawl nature of plants that could affect cancer diseases.

The remedies of the original American medicine men were subject to special attention, and it turned out that a particular toxin found in the bark of the American Yew could stop certain types of cancer growth. The substance was called Taxol.

In the late 1980s, the need for the bark of the tree was so extensive that the naturally occurring yew in American nature was disappearing. Eco-activists protested loudly and demanded that cancer research would look somewhere else.

This initiated a race between various pharmaceutical companies to develop artificially produced Taxol so that it would be possible to continue to use the drug to treat cancer without destroying nature.

This was easier said than done, and that prompted the American National Cancer Institute to enter the process, with large sums for any company furthest ahead in the process. That did create a massive scandal in the United States, where it was perceived as an unlawful distortion of the free competition between the pharmaceutical companies.

But the goal sanctified the means.

Since the 1990s, Taxol has been produced in industrial quantities by cell cultures based on cells of the yew bark. The cells continue to produce Taxol without the need for more trees to be cut down.

In other words, billions of dollars were invested in the development of the poison that is now flowing in my body, depriving my cancer cells of their ability to divide.

While the electric dosing pump quietly ticks and sends drops of the liquid from the small plastic container into my arm, my thoughts go in gratitude to the indigenous medicine men, and the early pioneers of cancer research. To the eco-activists who saved American nature. And to the hordes of persistent biochemists, pharmacists, biologists, lab technicians, doctors and others who have used their imagination and – of course – plenty of sleepless nights to develop Taxol. Enough to treat millions of patients with ovarian cancer, breast cancer, or lung cancer worldwide.

And along the way, while the drops are seeping in, I also send a loving thought to Robin Hood. He has nothing to do with Taxol. But the warriors of Sherwood forest were famous for their agile longbows. They could shoot arrows at a speed of 140 kilometers per hour, which could therefore drill right through the armor of their enemies.     

Those longbows were cut from Taxus wood. And totally unmotivated, the thought of it makes me happy.


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